Why I left experimental particle physics – a meandering story

Some time ago, I promised that I would tell the story of my transition from experimental particle physics to theoretical optics.  With a lot of busy stuff going on at work and my research blogging efforts mired in some rather difficult reading, this seemed like a good time to share the story!

Before I begin, though, let me make a disclaimer: none of this should be interpreted as bashing on particle physics!  I have a soft spot in my heart for the field, and the research is getting very exciting with the gradual startup of the LHC.  This is really a story of how I chose my particular field of research, and how that decision involved balancing the nature of the research with the actual day-to-day work involved.  Most of my choices and rationalizations at the time were from the perspective of an unknowingly clinically depressed graduate student who hadn’t quite figured out what he wanted to do with his life.

One curious thing about my life are my cyclic bursts of energy and motivation.  Every few years, it seems that I subconsciously get bored with some aspect of my life and suddenly undertake a variety of ambitious and extended projects.  The most recent of these, I think, involved my stopping at a music store one day after work on a whim and signing up to take guitar lessons.  The first I recall was near the end of my undergraduate years.

I did my undergraduate work as a physics major at the University of Chicago.  For a large portion of my life, I’ve been a rather passive individual, “going with the flow” without making big efforts to achieve my own dreams.  For example, in my junior year, I remember meeting one of my first-year professors on the quad.

“Still a physics major?” he asked.

“Yeah, I can’t think of anything better to do,” I replied, which sort of ended the conversation.

My statement was bitter, but rather honest; somewhere in the back of my mind I was convinced that I was carrying on a physics degree until I found my true calling, whatever it was.  Nearing the end of that junior year, though, I realized that I needed to get more involved if I was even to continue in physics in grad school.

I exploded into action: I got myself a summer job in an experimental particle physics research group, and made plans to do an (optional) senior physics thesis which would graduate me with honors.  I decided to become a physics tutor, and I took up two martial arts, karate and aikido, on the side. I agreed to be a student marshal, which meant that I would help out at graduation, and I even volunteered to be a resident assistant in my dorm.  (Sometime around then I also started working at GenCon gaming convention, which went on for seven years, but that’s another story.)

I had a good time doing my thesis.  I ended up constructing and testing, from someone else’s design, an analog electronic circuit which could measure the energy output of a particle calorimeter.  The analog design was discarded in favor of the digital version, but I still learned a lot.  I had a great post-doc directly advising me, who I can credit with breaking me of a lot of bad habits (such as saying “I understand” when I didn’t understand), and was indirectly supervised by the head of the project, one of those people who is very nice but, by virtue of his intelligence and authority, scared the hell out of everyone.  (He once walked by the lab, poked his head in to say, “Hi!” and I nearly hit the ceiling.)

After graduation, I stayed on in the lab for another year and then applied to graduate school, and got accepted to the University of Rochester.  I did a TA for a year and then settled into working with an advisor doing experimental particle physics.

Things kind of drifted along aimlessly then for a while, and I gradually started to lose my enthusiasm over particle physics.  Part of this was the environment: I went from a school very strong in particle physics (Chicago) to a school very strong in optics, and the enthusiasm level just didn’t seem as high for the particle stuff.  Part of this was due to the recent demise of the SSC (superconducting super collider), which was supposed to fill the role that CERN’s new Large Hadron Collider now holds: discovering new physics through unprecedented high-energy collisions.  I actually was a “fly on the wall” during one of the strategy discussions when the UofC physicists were deciding how to convince Congress to save the accelerator.  Around the time I started graduate school, particle physics felt a bit like it had the wind knocked out of it.

Lots of little things started to drive me nuts, though it is important to keep in mind that I was suffering from clinical depression and very little would have made me happy back then.

I spent one day in the accelerator tunnels assisting an engineer during his inspection of the accelerator beamline.  When he found an area which wasn’t quite level, he would use a crowbar to force a pipe high enough to stuff a shim underneath it — not exactly what I was expecting!  At one point during the inspection, he had to give a quick ten-minute tour of the lab to visitors, and told me to wait in the tunnel.

There were no chairs down there, so I started looking for somewhere along the wall where I could prop myself and wait.  But everywhere along the beamline, there were these little chalkboards, marked with the dosage of radiation I would get by standing in their vicinity.  I walked probably half of the tunnel looking for a non-radioactive part of the tunnel, to no avail!  To be fair, the radiation level was essentially negligible for the amount of time I was spending there, but it did make me wonder whether I liked the work enough to get any extra radiation exposure.

Part of the difficulty of getting involved in particle physics is the rather steep learning curve: the physics is very non-intuitive and the techniques are elaborate.  Searching for new physics requires first learning to interact with a massive catalog of simulated collision events.  By working with this data set, one can develop a set of “cuts” which will in principle eliminate all the false positives and only leave those events which represent the new physics.  Even then, one needs a very good understanding of statistics to interpret whether or not the detected results are statistically relevant or not.

One day, after having worked for months on developing a great set of cuts to search for “rare-B” decays (rare, non-standard model decays of the bottom quark that would represent new physics), I proudly showed off my proposed cuts to one of the post-docs working on the project.  His response, in effect, was: “Don’t put too much faith in that simulation catalog.  We know it’s not very accurate.”  WTF?  Then what was I doing working with it for all that time???

Particle physics experiments are massive undertakings that require a large group working in collaboration to build and maintain both the detector and accelerator.  One necessary side effect of this is that research results end up being published with the entire group as co-authors, and the groups can be ridiculously large: the CDF collaboration, which discovered the top quark at Fermilab, had at the time some 300 members.  To my mind, I was just as troubled by the possibility of other people co-authoring (and taking credit for) my work as I was by the possibility of my name being associated with work I had no direct role in.

The final straw for me, though, was:


I, or more accurately, my advisor, was assigned the task of testing a prototype for the inner tube of the new detector’s drift chamber.  A particle detector is built around the “tunnel” the particles travel through.  The particles collide head-on in the center of this detector, and charged particles produced in the collision scatter out through the drift chamber, a large collection of densely packed, highly-charged wires (via NobelPrize.org):


The charged particles are detected by the wires, and a powerful magnet curves the trajectories of the particles, allowing a measurement of their momentum.  A sample event measured by the CDF detector is shown below (via DOE Pulse):


The wire chamber is in a vacuum — the wires would discharge in air — so the 12-inch diameter inner cylindrical wall of the chamber must be airtight.  It must also be temperature resistant (the wires get hot), and must be precisely round to within around a 100 micron tolerance, which is the distance of the closest wires to the wall.  We received a prototype carbon fiber tube, and it became my job to test the damn thing.

For. A. Whole. Year.  It took FOREVER to do the measurements.  It is very difficult to set up and operate a system to measure the roundness of a 1-meter long, 12-inch diameter tube to micron precision — and wasn’t even close to round.  It also leaked air profusely.  The final straw, after a year of measurement, was to put a small slice of it into an oven at 100 degrees and see what happened.  The thing came out a hugely distorted ellipse!  The tube, like my undergraduate circuit project, ended up not being used.

At that time, I started reflecting on my career.  I had just spent most of the year measuring a TUBE!  I couldn’t imagine how that would look on my future resume.  I was frustrated, and didn’t think my career was going anywhere.

It was then that I had another one of my bursts of ambition.  Like many young physicists, I had gotten into science with the dream of becoming a theoretical physicist.  Why, then, had I ended up in experimental work?  Partly it was due to inertia — I was following the path that started with my undergraduate particle physics job.  Partly, though, I realized that going into a large experimental physics group was my way of “playing it safe” and finding a career where I felt I could “hide” amongst a crowd.

I emphasize again that this isn’t the way particle physics works — rather, it was my rather immature and inaccurate view of the way it works.  Nevertheless, I realized that I really wanted to do theoretical work, and wondered how to make it happen.

I was lamenting my state to a classmate in Taco Bell a short time later and he suggested that I could possibly work for his advisor, a distinguished theoretician.  I joined the research group and started life as a theoretical optics researcher.  My work was no longer the “fundamental” physics I had originally aspired to, but I found that I loved it nevertheless.

This wasn’t the end of my troubles, of course; theoretical work has its own downsides.  A few years later, with my grad work floundering, I had another burst of energy and took up skating, skydiving, long-distance running and kung fu.  A few years after that, I got treated for my depression, and a final burst of energy got me graduated and on my way to Amsterdam to postdoc.

If there is some bigger point to this post, I guess I should direct it to aspiring scientists.  When choosing a field of research, you should consider whether not only the topic of study but also the methodology is something you enjoy.  Also, make sure you choose a research field because it is truly what you want to do, and not simply what you are doing to “play it safe.”

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19 Responses to Why I left experimental particle physics – a meandering story

  1. For one, I am glad you both overcame your depression and found your way into optics, because I’ve learned a great deal about optics and its history from your blog (although I comment infrequently). As a young physicist with no particular direction planned, I also take some personal comfort in hearing your story. Please keep writing!

  2. The Ridger says:

    I want to ditto Mark’s comment, with the difference that I’m not a young physicist, or any kind of physicist!

  3. Aydin says:

    Do you have bipolar disorder? If you try to channel your creative energy into research during one of your “manic” phases, instead of guitar playing or skating-not that anything is wrong with such activities-you may hit onto something big.

    • Aydin: Nah, I don’t think I’m bipolar. I have a pretty good understanding of the illness, thanks to a severely bipolar roommate I had in grad school who went off his meds (I actually had two extremely psychologically disturbed roommates in a row in grad school; that’s a story for another post). In hindsight, I interpret my “bursts of energy” as a very strong instinct for self-preservation: every time my life reached a point where I really needed to do something to turn it around, my brain rallied and pushed past the depression enough to get things done.

      As for the choice between skating et al and more research, that’s a topic I should elaborate on in another blog post…

  4. Dr. SkullStars wrote: “This is really a story of how I chose my particular field of research, and how that decision involved balancing the nature of the research with the actual day-to-day work involved. ”

    For me it’s also the story of how life really is a matter or perspective. I know it sounds hokey, but for the most part, life is not “good” or “bad”—it just is. Although neither you nor I ended up staying in particle physics, and we were both clinically depressed while we were doing it; we also had an awful lot of fun in that lab in Chicago [thank you Dr. A.R. for having the foresight to install a window!!!], and we’ve got 15 years of friendship to show for it.

    To Aydin: No offense (seriously, no offense), but PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE do not attempt to increase Dr. SkySkull’s academic productivity. (At last report, his H-index was 14.) If it gets any higher, he registers as a “super genius”, and the only job openings for people like that generally have the word “evil” in the title. (Says the guy who presently earns a living making better bombs.)

  5. IronMonkey says:

    Thanks for sharing your experience in grad school. Your winding path in grad school and ultimately successful career in academia comforts me a little since I took a much longer time before starting my current PhD (after a “long” M.Sc. and a wrong choice of PhD). I’ll try keeping some of your advices in mind.

    • IM: You’re welcome! I took a ridiculously long time in getting to my PhD, starting with a year off after undergrad + a lot of years frittering my time away in grad school (thank goodness I had a sympathetic advisor). In the end, I think keeping up a certain amount of “momentum” in your studies once you’ve started is more important than the amount of time it takes to finish.

  6. Melanie says:

    I had sort of the opposite effect. Coming to UofR, and seeing the people who dedicated themselves to optics and quantum optics, I became completely sure that I wanted to do particle physics 🙂 I also originally thought I would prefer to do theory, but taking theoretical particle physics classes convinced me I wanted to do work where I’d have a chance of seeing something interesting, as opposed to coming up with a lot of theories of things that would be interesting if they existed. For instance, how long have we been searching for a Higgs? And if we finally find one, is that more a victory for the one who predicted it, or the person who came up with the idea to find it? Don’t really know the answer to that, but since finding it excites me more… I think theory is not for me 😉

    And of course now I really want to know who your advisor was…

    • Melanie: Thanks for the comment! It’s good to hear someone’s story of choosing to go the other way, as it hopefully emphasizes that my post is not about bashing particle physics, but rather about finding what field really excites you.

      And of course now I really want to know who your advisor was…

      I’m not telling… yet! 🙂

  7. murison says:

    “…make sure you choose a research field because it is truly what you want to do.” A prof I had as an undergrad, whom I greatly admired (and, unreasonably, feared!), gave me some great advice my senior year: don’t go into astronomy unless you have a passion for it — you won’t have the drive to get through it otherwise. Or words to that effect. Those words have stuck in my mind ever since, and, looking back 26 years later, I can say with complete certainty they were indeed spot on. (Substitute for , of course.) I would go so far as to say that this is *the* most important consideration when deciding what field to pursue. Be completely honest with yourself and follow your heart. Whether in the end you succeed or fail, the journey will have been worth it many times over.

    • murison wrote: “I would go so far as to say that this is *the* most important consideration when deciding what field to pursue.”

      I’m pretty much feel the same way. It’s always good to have some practical considerations in choosing one’s career (i.e. can I find a job and will it have reasonable pay?), but those considerations should always be balanced with one’s passion for the field. There’s no point going through 10+ years of education at low pay if the job at the end of the tunnel isn’t what you really love.

  8. murison says:

    Argh! Apparently, angle brackets get interpreted as html tag delimiters. Mangled sentence recast: ‘Substitute “any subfield of science” for “astronomy”, of course.’

  9. Errchy says:

    “Still a physics major?” he asked.
    “Yeah, I can’t think of anything better to do,” I replied, which sort of ended the conversation.
    My statement was bitter, but rather honest; somewhere in the back of my mind I was convinced that I was carrying on a physics degree until I found my true calling, whatever it was.”

    I’m about to enter my junior year as a physics major that excerpt is me to a tee. Whats worse is that my GPA has suffered because of my lack of effort. However I’m planning to completely overhaul next semester, and I feel rather inspired by reading this blog post. I have been torn between optics and particle physics, but leaning towards optics. Thanks for the great read.

    • I hope it helps! There’s no doubt that working towards a degree in physics can be quite rough and discouraging at times but, for me at least, it’s been very rewarding in the end. Best of luck with your major, and your choice of research!

  10. malinda says:

    thax fr d advice

  11. Nam says:

    Tks for sharing! It does mean a lot to me. You have given me the gift of a different perspective and for that, I thank you. I know it’s quite late to ask as 8 years have past since this blog came out but anyways

    So actually I’m currently a high school student from international (too young for doing research stuff ), yet I’m considering for applying university. Although in middle school, I’ve start quite early in reading science textbook and actually trying to learn it seriously instead of reading popular sci-fi books. But I’m not confident enough to admit I like physics (Particle Physics and Cosmology) although I was trying to keep my hobby create small Astronomy model myself with Mathematica or keep up with science news from experts. I know what I’ve done is nothing much but I always try to do my best spend time diving deep into topics.

    The problems is I’ve read blog about experts quitting their research area for a lot of reason not making enough ends meet, depressed with writing research papers, etc… Honestly, it doesn’t discourage me or something, in fact thanks because of you and people are willing to sharing your story, I’ve thought a lot about, again a quite cliche question: Is it actually worthy to continue doing research, pursing our hobby?

    I know people would have different views on it but from the bottom of our heart I want to hear your opinion. I mean I could do something else: programming, engineer but I felt I might fight doing maybe full-time research more (although I haven’t any experience)

  12. Monika Getsova says:

    I don’t know who you are and I would never say this to someone on the internet, but I love you for having exactly the same experience as me. I’m still in undergrad so thanks for the hope!

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